My first solo trip was to Ireland when I was 19, a six-day vacation in the middle of working as an au pair in France for the summer. After several Guinness and live music filled days, Ireland had earned the a place as one of my favorite countries- it really is a beautiful, surprisingly rugged place with lots of good-hearted (and handsome) locals.
In in my mind, Ireland is the perfect first-time solo travel destination for English-speakers. Here’s why:
a. There’s a common language with kind, welcoming people, making it easy to communicate and get to know locals
b. There are oodles of fascinating ruins and sites, as well as great culture, music and general Irish-ness
c. Ireland’s less expensive than other English speaking destinations such as as Australia or the U.K.
d. And it’s a small, safe country that you can cross in 3 or 4 hours
That being said, I will admit that I didn’t like solo travel right away, even in Ireland. Here is a ranty email excerpt from the beginning of my trip:
I dont really like travelling alone, mainly because you have to rely on making friends in order to have company. I like being able to walk everywhere alone but everything’s twice as scary and expensive when you’re alone. Like yesterday when I got in the car with a bunch of Spanish guys, which could’ve potentially gone very badly, I was scared AND alone which is far worse than just being scared.
But don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Just make sure to take some safety precautions: carry pepper spray, don’t walk home alone at night (especially not with headphones!), don’t drinking too much and be reasonably careful. And um, don’t get into a car with a bunch of Spanish guys.
In my pre-blogging days, I was much less vigilant about taking photos- hence why I literally didn’t take one picture of Dublin or Galway. But here is my coverage of the wonderful, windblown day I spent biking around Ennismore, the largest of the Aran islands.
A bike which was mode of transportation for the day as well as a source of frustration…
Stumbling upon a Celtic graveyard…
Stopping for some delicious fish chowder and brown bread…
Buying a Celtic wraith t-shirt and Claddagh ring…
Biking to Dun Aengus, a beautiful Celtic fortress ruin…
Overall it was a perfect day of solitude, blustery weather and a quiet kind of joy you feel when you’ve done someone really good for yourself, all on your own.
Also- before I left the island, there was a magical moment when an Irish boy welcomed me into his bike shop to escape the rain. After we chatted for about an hour he asked me if he could kiss me, and as I had a boyfriend at the time, I was forced to decline. Sadness.
Since then I have returned to Ireland twice. And I can safely say that all three of my solo trips to the Emerald Isle have been amazing.
So please, think about Ireland if you’ve never traveled alone before but might want to try. I promise you won’t regret it- and maybe, just maybe, a cute Irish guy will pull you out of the rain. And in that case I implore you to give him a kiss or two.
For more of my Ireland coverage: A Grand, Google-Filled Weekend in Dublin’s Fair City, My 22nd Birthday in Cork, Ireland, A Journey to the West- Dingle, Ireland, Dingle II: Irish Heritage and Craggy Cliffs, A Mini Irish Road Trip
Have you ever traveled solo in Ireland?
So after two happy and windblown days in Dingle, (which you can read about here and here), it was finally time to leave the peninsula to fly back home. The only problem was I wasn’t sure how to get off of the peninsula, considering most options were fairly pricey.
Luckily, the night before I left, I met a local Irish guy named Ross and his group of friends at the pub. Meeting them was as they say, good craic, and after a boozy night out Ross offered to give me a ride across the peninsula. And who am I to turn down a free road trip with an Irish stranger?
Our mini road trip in Ireland involved driving across Conor Pass, the highest mountain pass in Ireland and the most scenic road of the peninsula.
As usual in Ireland, the weather was misty, rainy and cloudy. (When family and friends back home ask what it’s like in Ireland I tell them it’s basically like sitting on the side of a boat; there’s always drizzle flying in your face.)
We then pulled over to hike up to some pools at the top of the mountain. This waterfall was right next to the parking area – seriously, Ireland? How picturesque can you be?
You know how some people look effortlessly awesome no matter what they wear? I’m not one of those people. Even my little brother pointed out how homeless I look in the picture below. (In all fairness, I am technically homeless.) I literally had no clothes for cold weather so I just threw on everything I had. Please don’t judge me.
The climb up was slippery, rocky and absolutely beautiful.
When we got to the top, Ross pointed out some peat to me (or “turf” as they say in Ireland), which I had assumed was just mud. “They use it a lot as fuel in the old houses, and the smell is lovely,” he said.
I think “smelling the scent of burning peat” is now on my bucket list, and yet another reason why I’ll have to return to Ireland.
The descent was decidedly more difficult than the way up; I slipped so many times in my flat, useless shoes (and yes, I’m blaming my clumsiness on my footwear!) that Ross practically had to carry me down the hill. Poor guy.
Our final stop on the road trip was the harbor in Tralee, Ross’ hometown. This is where the famine ships left for the U.S. It seems sad, doesn’t it?
So while it was probably the shortest road trip I’ve ever taken, it was also one of the most beautiful. And craic-filled.
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So on my second day in Dingle the weather was too rough to do anything at sea which is where most of the attractions take place (including seeing Fungie the dolphin, sadly).
So what was left to do? The Dingle archaeological tour.
The white tour van picked me up outside of my B&B, and I climbed in with about eight other American tourists. The tour guide was a wizened, news-cap wearing Irishman with a delightful Kerry accent. He had a wry sense of humor, and an incredible knowledge of the peninsula.
First he taught us all about the ogham stones. The notches on the edges of the stones are writing, and not random scratches like my silly self had assumed.
Next we drove up the narrow Slea Head drive, a scenic road that loops around the peninsula. Our guide pointed out the “Famine Fields” that haven’t been farmed since the potato famine of the 1840s.
I had read before about the horrors of the famine; things like children who begging from house to house with green stains on their mouth from eating grass and families surviving off of nothing but nettle soup for days. But I didn’t know that around 75% of Dingle inhabitants either perished or left. That’s truly an unimaginable percentage.
Then our guide pointed out a famine cottage which dated back to the 1840s. Another fun fact – did you know there are 4 million Irish people and 50 million people of Irish descent?
Our guide pointed to various hills and towns as we drove around the peninsula and said, “This hillside went to Smithfield, Massachussetts.” “This village went to the South side of Chicago.” It made me envious that I know so little about my Irish heritage – maybe my ancestors were Dingle residents as well!
On a lighter note, I took a few shots of some of the Dingle wildlife I saw…
Dingle is certainly as beautiful as they say; I loved watching the powerful surf break against the shore. The only way to see quintessentially Irish views like this is by booking a cheap ticket to Ireland!
We also learned that the Spanish armada crashed here in 1588. One girl I met from Dingle claimed to be of “black Irish” descent, meaning her partial Spanish heritage accounts for her dark features. (She actually had blond hair and pale, freckled skin so I don’t know how much water the “black Irish” myth holds.) It’s an interesting theory nonetheless.
Our last stop was the Gallarus Oratory, a dry-stone church dating from around the year 800. It was built without mortar, and incredibly enough it’s still dry inside after more than 1200 years. As well as very dark.
Though I was unsure if I would like the tour, it turned out to be fantastic! I enjoyed seeing the famine cottage and learning about the history of the peninsula from a local’s perspective. And standing over the heather-covered cliffs was a travel moment I won’t forget.
Are you interested in Irish Heritage? Have you ever visited Dingle?
Ah, Dingle. The gorgeous, oft-visited peninsula that so easily found its way into my heart. Dingle was so much more than the tourist-haven I expected, and with its beautiful music, people and nature, I’m dying to go back.
Dingle is located on the far west stretches on Ireland, about as far as you can go before hitting America.
I came to a Dingle in a rough state: I had just spent a wild birthday night in Cork, and was still recovering from a 103-degree fever in Corfu and four nights of debauchery at the Pink Palace. But Dingle made me feel better from the first moment I saw a glimpse of it on the bus:
I know Lonely Planet would scold me, but Dingle Town was utterly charming. Who couldn’t love a town with a pet dolphin named Fungie that lives in the harbor?
Hungover, bedraggled and sick with a cold so bad I lost my voice, I wandered into a pub/B&B and asked for a room. It was there I scored one of the best deals of my travels; for 35 euros a night I had my own fluffy, queen-size bed and private bathroom, as well as a delicious, home-cooked breakfast. That’s barely more than I pay for a lice-ridden hostel bunk! (Kidding! Well, sort of.)
I had been planning on spending my three days on the west coast visiting a few different places, but upon arriving to this cozy B&B I just knew I had to stay put.
After napping away my first few hours in Dingle, I finally dragged myself out of bed to do some exploring. I’m not in a place with a name as great as Dingle everyday, you know.
Wandering around I snapped away at the vistas that always charm me in Ireland: the wildflowers growing out of hedges, the greener than green grass, the cobblestone sidewalks. But there were some sites that were new to me like the harbor full of colorful boats. It turns out that long before Dingle was a tourist magnet it was a fishing town, which explains the fish chowder advertised on every menu in town.
And then the magic stopped for a moment when I spotted the construction of a cinder block wall on the side of the road. All these years I totally thought the quaint, stone-hewn walls were real. But cinder blocks! You really pulled one over on me, Ireland.
The magic was restored when I saw this promising sign.
Around dinner time, I started chatting with a super friendly American family while standing outside of a pub. They invited me in and bought me a half-pint of Guinness, and then invited me to come along to dinner with them. As someone who not only frequently dines alone but dines on train-station sandwiches, I couldn’t believe my luck.
We headed to Out of the Blue, a restaurant which 1,000 Places to See Before You Die rates as the best in town. To my delight, it was seafood-only. I dug into smoked Irish salmon and creamy fish chowder while gabbing away with my fellow Americans. Good wine, brown bread and golden Irish butter accompanied the conversation, naturally.
After dinner we headed over to the town’s liveliest pub, The Courthouse. There was a girl singing in Irish whose voice made my eyes well up with tears. In fact she was so good that I even bought her CD, which means a lot considering how cheap of a traveler I am.
At the Courthouse I met lots of somewhat wasted but friendly Irish people with beautiful Irish names like Aisling (pronounced like “Ash-ling”), Caera, Murtagh, Dervela and Dáire. (Which I will now add to my collection of people I’ve met with Irish names like Lorcan, Róisín and Crona.)
Dingle is located in the Gaeltacht region, where Irish is still spoken, so that accounts for all of the cool Gaelic names.
This was my post-pub breakfast the next morning. And I must ask you; is there anything better than an Irish breakfast when you’re a tad hungover?
Have you ever visited Dingle, Ireland? Did you like its pubs as much as I did?
I had a plan for what my 22nd birthday would be like; I would be sitting in a cozy pub on a windswept, lonely peninsula, listening to traditional Irish music and sipping a frothy half-pint of Guinness.
And what was my 22nd like in reality? Well it was in Ireland, but that’s where the comparison stops.
My birthday began at a middle-of-nowhere airport in Belgium. I took a stressful Ryanair flight to Dublin (is there any other kind of Ryanair flight?), made my way downtown and then boarded a five-hour bus ride to Cork. Cork is known as both the Real Capital of Ireland and as the country’s most food-centric city so I was excited.
Upon arriving I wandered the city with my unforgivably heavy backpack until I found a hostel. Apparently I’m way too cool for reservations these days.
My first order of business was to check out the English Market, Cork’s well-known farmers market that Samantha Brown featured on her travel show. (Um… I swear I don’t get all of my travel advice from Sam, honest.)
I ended up buying some hearty soda bread, white cheddar and buttered eggs for dinner, though I wanted much more. Unfortunately food shopping gets a tad complicated when you perma-live in hostels.
Side comment – Is it just me or is Irish food nothing like English or Scottish food? Irish food is surprisingly delicious and artisanal: black pudding, smoked salmon, Dublin Bay scallops, hearty soda breads and Kerry Gold… who knew!
When I asked the hostel employees where I could find a pub in town with traditional Irish music, I was told, “You’re never going to find traditional music in Cork. You’re going to have to go to a little town for that.” I think I could hear my Irish music-obsessed heart break.
And then by way the magic of hostels, a group of guests formed, all in the pursuit of going out together that night. There were nine of us, and as the Brits might say, we were five froggies and four yanks.
We started off the night drinking and chatting at a lively pub. The nine of us were struggling to communicate through our Franco-anglo language barrier, but strangely enough we began speaking more easily with one another as the night went on. It seems that alcohol is the true universal language.
After the pub we tried (and failed) to get into several clubs around town. Strangely enough, no one would let us in because two of the girls in our group were under 21. I thought that only happened in the puritanical U.S.!
So long story short, we ended up at the trashiest club I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying a lot. It was kind of like the Jersey Shore meets working-class Ireland if you can picture that.
Let me start out by saying that the club had a chess theme. As in the dance floor was a black and white chess set lined with 10-foot tall pawns, knights and castles, all illuminated by neon green lights. The music was so loud that I was concerned I would have permanent inner ear damage. And we actually saw a girl-on-girl, hair-pulling cat-fight on the dance floor. It was madness.
So the moral of the story here? Sometimes you don’t get what you wish for, and that’s A-OK. My birthday didn’t involve craggy coastline and quaint cottages, but it did involve girl-on-girl cat-fights, Guinness and a birthday kiss from a cute French guy. And for your 22nd, I don’t think you can do much better than that.
Have you ever celebrated your birthday in Cork, Ireland? Was it as crazy as mine?
Strangely enough the story of my Dublin trip begins in Chicago. It all started when I met an Irish guy named David at a bar called the Irish Oak.
After a brief chat, David handed me his Google business card. While we never got together in Chicago, I sent him an email a few weeks before leaving for Dublin. The lesson here – hang on to business cards! Especially if they say Google on them.
John Mulligan’s via Yelp. When I arrived in Dublin I called David, and he took me out for drinks at John Mulligan’s (and by drinks I mean Guinness, naturally).
David described Mulligan’s as an “old man’s pub” and told me that it was one of the last old-fashioned pubs in Ireland. I loved everything about it: the red-lacquered walls, the seasoned clientele, the sassy wall plaques and the fact that it was founded in 1782.
The next day I spent the bulk of my time at the beautiful and green Trinity College campus (why didn’t I apply there, seriously?)
I went there to see The Book of Kells, a religious manuscript that was created by Celtic monks more than a thousand years ago. According to Wikipedia, it is widely regarded as “Ireland’s finest national treasure.”
The Book of Kells via the Examiner
After seeing the book I highly agree. The book’s designs are so impossibly tiny they seem to have been painted by butterflies, and the script is raised and glossy as if it were nail polish. The admission price was 10 euros but it was totally worth it.
I next happily stumbled upon the statue of Molly Malone. Don’t know her? She’s a famous fishmonger and prostitute who now lives on Grafton street. There’s even a song about her that is known as Dublin’s unofficial anthem.
Per David’s recommendations, I headed to Merrion Square to see the famous Georgian doors. I snapped away like a wild-woman, determined to photograph every door in the square. I even asked an elderly gentleman who was retrieving the paper if his house was a museum. I shouldn’t be allowed in public.
David wrote me an email to meet him and his friends for dinner. On my walk to the outskirts of Dublin I stumbled upon a few pieces of interest, including more Georgian doors.
I met David and his friends for a Guinness (question – why is Guinness drastically better in Ireland?) and then headed off to The Chop House for dinner.
The food was great. Like amazing. Like how-is-Ireland-not-a-huge-food-destination amazing. I ordered Dublin scallops with black pudding and the combination was Michelin-quailty genius. And it was reasonably priced – my dinner cost only 14 euros.
After dinner we met up with some more of David’s Google friends and pub and club-hopped for the rest of the night.
Sometimes you should be a responsible, culture-focused traveler. And sometimes you should take blurry pictures and drink mojitos in an Irish club.
I want to thank David and all of his amazing friends for showing me the city over the weekend. It was so much fun hearing their stories and getting to know them, and getting a glimpse into what Dublin is really like.
Overall writing this makes me miss Dublin, and especially my beloved Ireland which I never tire of visiting. But I’ll be back. And I know a half-pint of Guinness is waiting for me.
Have you ever visited Dublin? Did you hang out in Merrion Square too?